Washington Insider - Wednesday

Social Brands and Food Safety

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Next Steps for Biotech Food Labeling in Congress

The Senate by the end of the month should finally vote on a bill that will likely provide a path ahead for the sensitive issue of biotech food labeling.

But what the final Senate bill’s language will contain is still murky. It will be different from the version that passed the Senate Ag Committee March 1 because three of the nine Democratic senators on the Ag panel supporting the markup measure did so on expectations the language would change once the bill got to the full Senate floor.

Reports have surfaced that the bill could be taken up on the Senate floor as soon as this week. On Tuesday Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants to have debate and a vote on the measure next week. Roberts said his goal is to have a bipartisan agreement reached before the end of this week. He would not detail any of the possible compromises needed to garner what he said was the needed support of “at least 20 Democrats.”

Four Senate Democrats filed legislation last week that would make labeling mandatory. The bill pushed by Roberts is voluntary.

Roberts said he is willing to work with Democrats on a floor amendment that addresses their concerns. Democrats have stressed that any legislation preempting state laws must contain a pathway to mandatory labeling.

Under the Democrats’ mandatory labeling measure, manufacturers would be able to choose from one of four options for updating their nutrition labels to show the product contains GE foods, including:

· Using parenthesis following the relevant ingredient to indicate the ingredient is “Genetically Engineered.”

· Using an asterisk next to an ingredient with an explanation at the bottom of the ingredients list.

· Using a “catch all” statement at the bottom of the ingredient list stating the product was “produced with genetic engineering.”

· Using a symbol developed by FDA in consultation with manufacturers that would “clearly and conspicuously” disclose the presence of genetically engineered ingredients.

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No Vote Taken on EU Glyphosate Reauthorization

A European Union (EU) member state vote on the proposed EU re-authorization of glyphosate did not take place after consideration of a plan at meeting March 7 and 8 as several governments seemingly indicated they would not vote in favor and would thus prevent a qualified majority.

A possible vote had been put on the agenda, but talks will continue at a later Standing Committee meeting, Commission sources said – with some MEPs claiming a vote was postponed because France, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands stated their opposition and others, including Germany, indicated they currently have no position for or against.

Greens group MEP Bas Eickhout listed the above countries in a tweet, while the European Parliament’s Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group issued a press release stating that the Commission “has decided to postpone any decision” due to the opposition.

Though not yet confirmed, Agra Europe reported that with discussions continuing in the Standing Committee March 8, it would mean there is not currently a “qualified majority” of member states in favor – rather a “no opinion” position among member states.

Standing Committee votes on plant protection products like glyphosate follow the same EU procedures as genetically engineered authorizations. While a qualified majority in favor results in a proposal being adopted, a qualified majority against or a “no opinion” vote takes it to the so-called “Appeal Committee” and a vote in another Standing Committee meeting.

Under this procedure, the European Commission can either revise its draft proposal and submit it for a vote within two months, or re-submit its initial proposal for a vote within one month. If there is no qualified majority for or against, the Commission can adopt its proposal.

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Washington Insider: Social Brands and Food Safety

The food industry appears to be developing some fairly serious evidence that social-themed brands need to be as much or more safety conscious as others. Food Safety News (FSN) is reporting this week that a producer of “so-called cage-free eggs” in Missouri had to suspend operations in December and then recall eggs that were “associated” with Salmonella Enteritis illnesses in January. In addition, the company is on the receiving end of “a stern warning” from the US Food and Drug Administration.

FSN takes pains not to suggest that problems encountered by the Good Earth Egg Co. are a “general trend” for cage-free producers, but does point out FDA has concerns about this company regarding problems that “do come up with ‘cage-free’ eggs.”

In fact, FDA painted a grim picture of Good Earth. It charged that eggs were being produced in conditions “contaminated with filth,” without environmental testing or biosecurity measures to control the spread of Salmonella Enteritis, with no cleaning or disinfection procedures or proper refrigeration.

The company sells largely to the St. Louis metropolitan area and is owned by a third-generation farm. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services closed the operation in December.

The reason was Salmonella contamination. The state ordered remediation efforts and re-sampling, but then found the “association” of Good Earth eggs with Salmonella illnesses in early January and issued a “recall of eggs of various sizes and packaging,” FSN said.

FSN calls the “cage-free” name a misnomer because it does not mean laying hens are not confined. Rather, it means a “large enough space to allow the laying hens to stand up, lie down, turn around and fully extend their limbs without touching one another or the sides of the enclosure.” When the term “free range is used, hens are required to have access to the outdoors.”

FDA says it found the violations at the Good Earth Egg Co. sufficient to consider its shell eggs to be adulterated within the meaning the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and they may have been “injurious to health.” It found that Good Earth lacked a Salmonella Enteritis prevention plan as required by law, as well as a number of other safety defects including the lack of biosecurity measures, lack of prevention of cross contamination as equipment was moved between poultry houses and lack of attention to rodents and other pests in the egg laying houses.

Further, FDA questioned whether a family member on the farm is qualified to be the Salmonella Enteritis plan supervisor, in part because that person does not “oversee or participate in daily egg production.” In addition there is no record or documentation that laying houses are cleaned and disinfected as required.

FSN notes that egg producers using both tight and loose confinement systems have failed FDA’s inspections since the agency began to impose tougher conditions five years ago. However, “there is some evidence to suggest closer confinement of laying hens makes it easier to control pathogens, too,” FSN said.

Currently, demand for “cage-free” eggs is far greater than the supply especially since the recent market restrictions were applied in California. Numerous egg-buyers are promising their customers only “cage-free” eggs at some date in the future — most cite the year 2025, FSN says.

FSN’s focus on health threats from food producers who prominently trade on social themes carries at least the suggestion of growing concerns across the industry that food safety may be taking a back seat to other, more catchy issues. Based on FSN’s report, it is difficult to imagine how any food producer would allow procedures as careless as those reported, and it is at least some comfort to consumers to note that federal investigations following outbreaks of food-borne illness have increasingly led to significant charges and penalties.

FSN’s report does raise questions about the extent to which the importance of food safety is appreciated by at least some producers, and what the adoption of social brands across the industry means for that goal—questions that should be raised frequently as these trends intensify, Washington Insider believes.


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(GH/CZ)